Obligatory retrospective

I woke up at my normal time — probably around 2PM — in my room at Berkeley’s International House, to find an avalanche of email: from a fellow grad student, urging everyone to check the news; from Christos Papadimitriou, reminding us that we have a community here, and communities can comfort; from Luca Trevisan, announcing that the class that he taught and I TA’ed would be canceled, since on a day like this it was impossible to think about algorithms. I then clicked over to news sites to find out what had happened.

After confirming that my friends and family were safe, I walked over to my office in Soda Hall, mostly to find people to talk to. Technically I had office hours for the algorithms class that afternoon, but I didn’t expect students actually to come. Yet come they did: begging for hints on the problem set, asking what would and wouldn’t be on the test, pointing to passages in the CLRS textbook that they didn’t understand. I pored over their textbook, shaking my head in disbelief, glancing up every minute or so at the picture of the burning buildings on the computer screen.

That night there was a big memorial service in Sproul Plaza. When I arrived, a woman offered me a candle, which I took, and a man standing next to her offered me a flyer, which I also took. The flyer, which turned out to be from a socialist organization, sought to place the events of that morning in “context,” describing the World Trade Center victims as “mostly white-collar executives and those who tried to save them.”

After a few songs and eulogies, a woman got up to explain that, on this terrible day, what was really important was that we try to understand the root causes of violence — namely poverty and despair — and not use this tragedy as a pretext to start another war. The crowd thunderously applauded.

While the speeches continued, I got up and wandered off by myself in the direction of Bancroft Way. Much as I did the year before, when the area around Telegraph was festooned with Nader for President posters, I felt palpably that I wasn’t living in an outcomes-based region of reality. The People’s Republic of Berkeley was proving to be a staunch ally of the Oilmen’s Oligarchy of Crawford, undermining the only sorts of opposition to it that had any possibility of succeeding.

I decided to forget about politics for a while and concentrate exclusively on research. I can’t say I succeeded at this. But I did pass my prelim exam three days later (on September 14), and a few weeks afterward proved the quantum lower bound for the collision problem.

Note: Feel free to post your own retrospective in the comments section. Andris Ambainis has already done so.

31 Responses to “Obligatory retrospective”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Since I don’t have a weblog, I will leave my retrospective in comments.

    I was in Berkeley and I was planning to leave for my postdoc at IAS in 2 days. I wake up between 8am and 9am at friend’s home in Kensington. My friend was watching TV and told me what has happened. It sounded completely unreal but here it was, on TV in front of me.

    I spent most of the day in Soda Hall talking with other CS grad students. And collectively checking news in multiple languages, for stories that might not be in US media. A Russian news website was reporting that 11 airplanes were hijacked, with a reference to Japanese TV station NHK. We were cautious about that story but not dismissing it outright. Somewhere between all that, I made the required phone call to Latvia to assure my parents I was fine.

    When airplanes started flying, I moved to Princeton. Three days later than planned. Flying had changed. Everyone was in the airport three hours in advance, planes were leaving on time (if not cancelled) and arriving early. Strangely, I was not scared to fly at all. But a few days later, I had to fly New York-Vienna for a conference and then I remembered what happened and did not feel comfortable waiting for my airplane to take off.

    In Princeton, I spent significant part of my evenings watching previously unwatched TV channel called Fox News (which I haven’t watched for a long time now). And I kept assuring my parents that Princeton is such a remote place that nothing bad can happen there. I still haven’t told them Princeton post office was closed because of antrax envelopes.

    Andris

  2. Anonymous Says:

    And how long afterward did you write the spoof… “polynomial hierarchy collapses to the 2nd level”?

  3. Scott Says:

    Thanks, Andris!

  4. Scott Says:

    And how long afterward did you write the spoof… “polynomial hierarchy collapses to the 2nd level”?

    That was almost a year later. I took some flak for it, but I’d been conditioned (for example, by this Onion issue) into thinking that humor is one of the only possible responses. (See also: Occam’s Boxcutter.)

  5. Anonymous Says:

    How sad 9/11 might have been, it seems to only show how few people care about the rest of the world out there.

    When is the ceremony for Rwanda ’95, Darfur ’05, … ?!?

  6. Scott Says:

    anonymous: As I wrote here in January, I think the world’s ineffectual response to the Darfur genocide is sickening.

    The thing about 9/11 (apart from the political effects) is that many of us have been to the World Trade Center, grew up near there, knew people who worked there, etc. You can argue that it’s callous to focus on the tragedies we know better, but if so, then why isn’t it even more callous to focus on (say) music, physics, or complexity classes? Also, even if we did focus on Rwanda and Darfur, someone could ask why we’re ignoring the far greater tragedies of malaria and climate change. That’s the trouble with the which-tragedy-is-worst game.

  7. aram harrow Says:

    Yeah, it’s often absurd (or worse) to rank tragedies.

    But a little perspective, and sense of our common humanity, might have prevented the war on Afghanistan, which killed more than 3,000 civilians from direct bombing alone not counting the much larger, but still unmeasured, effects of cutting off food relief for several months.

    More personally, on 9/11 I went to Ike’s quantum computing class (which I TA’ed) as usual; his argument for holding it was that routine would be more reassuring than the alternatives. Only in hindsight did I agree.

    I remember not wanting to deluge my brother’s family (living in the lower East side) with calls since they were actually somewhat busy making sure the kids wouldn’t be affected by the smoke, so I called first someone else in the family; I think my parents.

    I spent the rest of the day with friends watching TV news (and occasionally the last scene of Fight Club for comparison), and I remember already being disgusted at all the calls for vengeance. Soon after I joined a newly-formed group of MIT students protesting the war on Afghanistan before it started. As you’ve pointed out, this wasn’t a well-received idea. Bemused bystanders would react to our protsts with “but we have to kill someone, don’t we?”

  8. Scott Says:

    Thanks, Aram!

    But if you missed it in the post, the idea of not having a war was spectacularly well-received in Berkeley, and I could have been one of the bystanders telling you that we had to kill someone.

    In general, protesters against a specific war have a better chance of winning me over, the more their arguments avoid the “Razborov-Rudich obstacle” of seeming to apply to pretty much any war.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    Aram says:
    “But a little perspective, and sense of our common humanity, might have prevented the war on Afghanistan”

    Sorry, I can’t remember any “war on Afghanistan” after 9-11. I do remember harsh military actions (war, if you like) against the Taliban dictatorship that among other things hosted Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda’s militants.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    Anonymous says,
    “Sorry, I can’t remember any “war on Afghanistan” after 9-11. I do remember harsh military actions (war, if you like) against the Taliban dictatorship that among other things hosted Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda’s militants.”

    You are correct but I would like to aska question. What is happening in Iraq and Lebanon in the name of “war against terrorism”? Two countries thrown in anarchy where US militia, jihadis, radicalist cannot do anything, but to worsen the situation. Imagine living in such circumstances and then you will come to the conclusion that if Laden is dangerous, so is Bush.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    “I would like to aska question. What is happening in Iraq and Lebanon in the name of “war
    against terrorism”?”

    I’m glad you asked. Here come the answers:

    1. In Iraq El-Qaeda’s militants kill about fifty innocent Iraqi people on a daily basis. US
    forces kill none.

    2. Lebanon: currently in no war. However, the situation is flammable as a fanatical shiite
    Muslim organization (Hezbollah) backed financially, politically and morally by a radical and
    destabilizing regime in Iran, is holding the whole country as a hostage.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    1. In Iraq El-Qaeda’s militants kill about fifty innocent Iraqi people on a daily basis. US
    forces kill none.

    How many of these innocent Iraqis would have been killed if the Us had never invaded Iraq?

    So, surely, you cannot claim that the invasion of Iraq has strictly make things better. The long-term effects are yet to be determined.

    In the short run, the only thing that we know for sure is that Bush is getting richer and richer.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    How many of these innocent Iraqis would have been killed if the Us had never invaded Iraq?

    So, surely, you cannot claim that the invasion of Iraq has strictly make things better. The long-term effects are yet to be determined.

    There are three separate considerations here.

    1. Could a competent and properly conceived overthrow of the Iraqi government, combined with adequate post-war support for the resulting infrastructure, have improved the situation for the Iraqi people?

    2. Even if the answer to (1) is YES, does this give the US the right to carry out such an overthrow with no other provocation?

    3. Will the incompetent and disasterous war that was actually waged by the US government have a long-term positive effect on the region despite the inepititude of its conception?

    Unfortunately, I think the answers are YES (competently spending hundreds of billions of dollars, it’s hard not to help someone, right?), NO (sovereign nations are afforded the right to screw themselves over without outside intervention), and the third quesiton is yet-to-be-decided, but I’m not optimistic… :(

    But let’s not miss the bigger picture here–religion is a horrible scourge upon civilized society, responsible for the majority of human suffering. No, seriously.

  14. aram harrow Says:

    anonymous (but all too common) says I’ve mischaracterized Operation Enduring Freedom:

    Sorry, I can’t remember any “war on Afghanistan” after 9-11. I do remember harsh military actions (war, if you like) against the Taliban dictatorship that among other things hosted Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda’s militants.

    This is like bin Laden saying that 9/11 was “against” American imperialism, but not the American people.

    Screw that. War and terrorism kill people, most of whom are civilians. And they destabilize more than they stabilize, empower extremists more often than moderates, and lead to corruption and concentrated power more often than democracy. Especially when they’re waged by people who don’t give a shit about the welfare of the people affected by the war/terrorism. There’s your general Razborov-Rudich dilemma, and unless a circuit lower bound is as dangerous as the Nazis, or maybe the NIF (in Sudan), it’s damn hard to overcome it.

    I’m not exactly sure whether that last sentence actually makes sense…. Hopefully the overall idea does.

    And Scott, I meant to refer to general public opinion in the U.S.; I realize Berkeley was an outlier.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Aram sez: “This is like bin Laden saying that 9/11 was “against” American imperialism, but not
    the American people.”

    No. It’s not.

    Explanation:

    It doesn’t matter what one “says” or declares. When one is asking for a *moral* assessment of actions, the actions and purposes are what count.

    US invaded Afghanistan in order to overthrow an oppressive dictatorship hosting terrorists who attacked the US; And not in order to convert every single person on earth to some religion.

    Bin-Laden attacked US as a part of an Islamic Jihadistic strategic goal to fight non-muslims all over the world. He identifies the US as the heart of such non-Muslim civilization.

    P.S.
    Personally, I doubt the honesty of those who claim that the US and El-Qaeda are morally equivalent, while being rather zealot in their anti-American attitude and rather appeasing in their stance toward radical Islam.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    “How many of these innocent Iraqis would have been killed if the Us had never invaded Iraq?”

    This question is irrelevant, since we are asking here a *moral* question (“who is worse, Bin-Laden or Bush?”). As I already explained in my previous answer to Aram, there is a huge moral difference between the current US government and El-Qaeda.

  17. Anonymous Says:

    I’m not sure how other readers feel, but it seems to me that anonymous comments generally have a much lower signal to noise ratio than signed comments. I often skim or skip the anonymous comments, but that has the disadvantage of making the conversation difficult to track. I guess another alternative is to skip the comments entirely, but I don’t want to do that as I often enjoy some of the thoughts that commenters post.

    I’m just a visitor on Scott’s blog, and it’s maybe presumptuous to make a request of others. Nonetheless, I will make the request: if you currently comment anonymously, could you please consider commenting with your name somewhere in your comment? Even if you don’t choose to get a blogger account, at least sign your name at the end of your comment, as I have done here.

    I know there’s instances where anonymity is helpful. But I doubt that blog comments are often such a place.

    Michael Nielsen

  18. the reader from Istanbul Says:

    The anonymous who wrote that US forces kill no innocent people in Iraq is just dreaming.

    I learned of the attacks slightly before my wedding party, from the early guests. I was able to reach a TV set and watch the news for some minutes. And then we got married, got home, had to order pizza due to an organizational glitch, and watched CNN during dinner.

    It was just a revolting act of murder.

    And it turned out to be politically magnificent for Bush, who turned the USA into something really, really disgusting.

  19. John Sidles Says:

    On September 11, my younger son Nathan and I were driving from Seattle to the University of Chicago, where he was starting college.

    But Nathan and I were talking so much, we completely missed all the radio coverage—we learned that the towers were coming down only when we stopped for gas.

    On that September 11, we didn’t forsee:
    • That Nathan’s older brother Alex would join the USMC, fight in Fallujah, and lose a foot to an IED.
    • That nation-building would become the focus of an Army/USMC field manual (summary here).
    • That nation-building would turn out to be so terribly difficult to accomplish.
    • That resources—spiritual, human, materiel, and technological—would turn out to be central to the struggle, no matter what your political take on it.

    As one family’s response, I am pleased to say that last week we formed the nonprofit Institute for Solder Healing (ISH). In turn, the ISH’s sole asset is the world’s first quantum system engineering consulting firm, the Federative Resources for Engineering Enterprises (FREE) Corporation.

    The ISH/FREE organization seeks to develop quantum microscopy tools for regenerative medicine and HIV/AIDS treatment. We’re a bridge between the fundamental quantum research of (e.g.) the Perimeter Institute and the real world of medical care and resource creation.

    This is just to point out, that one of the glories of the 21st Century is that individuals and small families can aspire to make big differences.

    And I don’t mind expressing the opinion, that quantum information theory—especially the sophisticated view of noise and measurement that it brings to engineering—is one of the greatest new resources that the 21st Century has on-hand.

  20. Anonymous Says:

    Like Scott says, different arguments should apply to different wars.

    The war in Afghanistan was a valid response against a government that was directly responsible for 9/11 and also happens one of the most despicable regimes on earth. It seems that overall it had a positive affect for the Afghani people, even though things would have been better if the US hadn’t shifted resources and attention to Iraq.

    The war in Iraq was an attempt to use 9/11 to launch some grand plan of inexperienced and ignorant neo-conservatives to change the face of the world, and is of course a collosal failure.

  21. aram harrow Says:

    anon: there is a huge moral difference between the current US government and El-Qaeda.

    I’m happy to agree! (Did anyone disagree? Listen carefully…)
    Now let’s work on increasing that difference instead of narrowing it.

    And as for what counts, I’d say outcomes are more important than intentions, declared or undeclared. I’m willing to give the planners of the Iraq war the benefit of the doubt on their good intentions (though nation building is definitely harder when you threaten to fire staffers who talk about it). But I suspect that would be cold comfort to the 3,438 Iraqis who died of violent causes in July and their families and communities. Similarly (but don’t take this juxtaposition too far), Scott didn’t appreciate the Berkeley socialists putting 9/11 in “context.”

  22. Anonymous Says:

    Most of the anons love to sit in their arm chair and comment on each other. No body of us have faced terrorism or have seen a war and still come to provocative conclusions.

    The war against Iraq has destabilized the country. Do you think the children surviving this nightmare will love US or Bush in future? Do you think they will not follow the path of jihadis? Do you think that the US policy will wipe out the terrorism from the wrold? And one more importatnt thing. US was attacked once but see the pattern after that. London bomb blast, Mumbai & Delhi bomb blast and a Bulgarian woman detonating herself. Before 9/11 all the jihadis were fanatics but after Iraq war the moderate Muslims have also joined the war against the non-Islamic countries.

    The so-called “War Against Terrorism” is pushing the world to the brink of Third World War. And if Bush is seriously concerned about terrorism, what is he doing for Sri Lankans who are fighting against LTTE?

    Sarvagya Upadhyay
    (I agree with Michael Nielsen)

  23. Paul Beame Says:

    On 9/11 I was awakened at 8:00 am by a phone call from my brother in Ireland. While I was still groggy he asked/told me about the planes crashing into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and the collapse of one of the towers. It did not seem real.

    The overwhelming feeling that day was one of powerlessness followed by concern for the people there. I found out that my cousin who lived across the street from the World Trade Center had been several blocks away and was able to run away from the debris and walk several miles to his brother’s appartment. I found out about Shafi Goldwasser’s brother surviving being on a very high floor of one of the towers by immediately taking an elevator down when the other tower was hit but not knowing the fate of some of the people he had just met with who stayed. Several days later I heard about Danny Lewin being on one of the planes.

    To me, all the stories of heroism on that day did little to disguise the feeling of our fundamental powerlessness. Rudolph Guiliani was effective precisely because he projected some level of control. A few days later when Bush stood on the pile of debris and made his ‘dead or alive’ speech it rang false when compared with his reactions of earlier days but I could understand why it rallied people. Reactions and support from around the world were my major source of comfort, not this speech.

    When you feel powerless and hurt, there is a tendency to lash out blindly and try to compensate for that feeling. The jingoism that followed soon after repelled me.
    (I didn’t have a real sense about the loss of civil liberties until later.) The extent to which this was a ‘show’ of patriotism was driven home during the extended opening ceremonies at a delayed NFL game a couple of weeks later. A massive US flag was unrolled on the field and gauzy pictures of Giuliani and Bush filled the screen saying brief words about the importance of carrying on with NFL football as part of the American way of life.

    At the end of September I had a trip to Edinburgh. At the airport I ordered a bagel and cream cheese and was handed them separately – there were no plastic knives to spread the cream cheese, only plastic spoons, but spoon handles can serve in a pinch. The flight on a DC-10 was only about 1/4 full. While I was there, Tony Blair gave an inspiring speech about the need to use 9/11 as a motivation to improve the lot of people in Afghanistan and the region by, among other things, removing the oppression of groups like the Taliban. It seemed as though some good guys were with us.

    The return flight was packed. I sat next to a doctor from Syria who was visiting Seattle and San Francisco with his mother. With all the backlash against Arabs I had heard about I marveled at the ease with which they passed through customs and immigration. Only later did it get much more difficult.

    As we were waiting for luggage I saw the news reports of the invasion of Afghanistan. At first I had a sinking feeling, though after a little further thought I realized it was likely a reasonable reaction to 9/11. My one thought, though, was “I sure hope they don’t screw this up”…

    The Iraq war seems so divorced from these events, though in many ways it was also pre-figured in Blair’s inspiring speech. It won’t be long before the number of US military personnel killed in the Iraq war exceeds the number of people killed on 9/11. A shocking statistic that the public is barely aware of (courtesy of The Mclaughlin Group): U.S. military amputeed, wounded, severely injured, injured, mentally ill, all now out of Iraq, 63,500.

    I am not inherently opposed to military action: The US military and NATO mission in Afghanistan still seems to be a good thing (and is supported internationally) even as it has lost some of its connection to 9/11. If only it stopped there.

  24. Anonymous Says:

    Sarvagya sez: “No body of us have faced terrorism or have seen a war..”

    That’s just your guess.

    “…and still come to provocative conclusions. ”

    Does a rational and moral justification of the US military actions after 9-11 is considered
    “provocative” nowadays? I would think that the opposite should be true, if at all.

    “Do you think the children surviving this nightmare will love US or Bush in future? Do you think they will not follow the path of jihadis?”

    This is a plain mistake. As I already mentioned, those who kill masses of innocent Iraqis are El-Qaeda’s militants. If your (sadly, all too common) psychological-paradigm of
    “suffer->hate->Jihad” is correct, then the Iraqis should turn against radical Islam.

    “Do you think that the US policy will wipe out the terrorism from the wrold?”

    No. The purpose is to decrease terrorism, not to wipe it out entirely. Just like police forces
    are intended to decrease crime not to wipe it out. Would you suggest to shut down the Police all together, as their harsh measures against (sometimes innocent) people, increase the hostility of the population toward its own government?

    And let me just conclude what I say shortly: Certainly, I would have preferred not to discuss global politics in this blog. However, I feel obliged to do so in response to other comments made earlier; especially when they reiterate a common political view that I see as utterly simplistic, biased and irrational in its nature – and sometimes even on the verge of esoteric pacifism.

    - A. Dunham

  25. Anonymous Says:

    A. Dunham says, “Does a rational and moral justification of the US military actions after 9-11 is considered
    “provocative” nowadays? ”

    I am talking about Iraq war, not the war against Taliban in Afghanistan, which by the way killed many innocent people. And please!!!! I did pray for the departed souls in WTC attack.

    “This is a plain mistake. As I already mentioned, those who kill masses of innocent Iraqis are El-Qaeda’s militants.”

    Iraq has turned in to a nightmare after the US-Iraq war. Before that, howsoever bad Saddam Hussain was, it was at least in a better situation. And yes!!!! we also hear US militia killing innocent people. It may have been a frustration of losing a fellow soldier but why not find out at http://www.riverbendblog.blogspot.com

    “Would you suggest to shut down the Police all together, as their harsh measures against (sometimes innocent) people….”

    Not at all. But do you think that Iraq was a terrorist nation? True, Taliban was ruling Afghanistan and US had to attack Taliban. But El Qaida is also operating in Pakistan and many other nations. Don’t you think US should also attack these nations. Some news also sugested that El-Qaida has its base in some parts of Kashmir in India too. What about that????

    “…especially when they reiterate a common political view that I see as utterly simplistic, biased and irrational in its nature – and sometimes even on the verge of esoteric pacifism.”

    I won’t comment on that but just picture yourself caught in the situation in which people in Iraq are. You will always “reiterate the simplistic, biased and irrational political view”.

    Lastly, I would say that I was not against US policies in Afghanistan but against Iraq. I am not well read in global politics but at least feel for family who lose their beloved in such circumstances.

    Sarvagya Upadhyay

  26. John Sidles Says:

    Sarvagya Upadhyay posted (very wisely IMHO): No body of us have faced terrorism or have seen a war and still come to provocative conclusions.

    Or as I parse what Sarvagya said: “No one who has faced terrorism or personally seen war still embraces provocative politics.”

    This accurately describes my family’s experience.

  27. Scott Says:

    Thanks, Paul! But don’t you realize this is a flame war? What business do you have being so reasonable?

  28. Anonymous Says:

    I am sorry to be a little argumentative here, but Sarvagya Upadhyay response had not confronted my arguments at all. In fact it (and the following comment by John Sidles) contains so many contradictions that I must point out at least one:


    Or as I parse what Sarvagya said: “No one who has faced terrorism or personally seen war still embraces provocative politics.” ”

    While Sarvagya says precisely the opposite:

    “…just picture yourself caught in the situation in which people in Iraq are. You will always “reiterate the simplistic, biased and irrational political view”.”

    P.S. To be honest, I don’t precisely understand what “provocative politics” means, and if this term referred to me.

    - A. Dunham

  29. Anonymous Says:

    A. Dunham says “am sorry to be a little argumentative here, but Sarvagya Upadhyay response had not confronted my arguments at all.”

    Thats not what I was wanting to do. You misunderstood me. I was responding to your arguments, not confronting your arguments. That’s one of the reason why you see contradictins in John and my post.

    Sarvagya Upadhyay

  30. Anonymous Says:

    A. Dunham says “am sorry to be a little argumentative here, but Sarvagya Upadhyay response had not confronted my arguments at all.”

    Thats not what I was wanting to do. You misunderstood me. I was responding to your arguments, not confronting your arguments. That’s one of the reason why you see contradictins in John and my post.

    Sarvagya Upadhyay

  31. Scott Says:

    What do you say we declare a stalemate?